Although his work is not read much today, Peter Viereck was one of the leading American poets of the 1950s and 1960s. But Viereck did not limit himself to writing poetry; he also became an important voice as a cultural critic, arguing for a sophisticated, intellectual model of conservatism. As a poet, Viereck was conservative: he opposed what he viewed as excessive experimentation and obscurity, and advocated a return to form, to rhyme, and to simple lyrics. In this, he was going against the dominant movement in poetry at the time—the allusive, free-verse modernist verse written by such poets as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. "For An Assyrian Frieze" appeared in 1948, in Terror and Decorum, Viereck's first volume of poetry and one that won him the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. "For An Assyrian Frieze" takes a cue from Pound in that the poet immerses himself in a long-ago time, but, unlike Pound, Viereck narrates this picture of Assyrian society in a very regular, formal verse. The portrait of the violent blood-lusting Assyrian society, synechdochized as the "lion with a prophet's beard," is ironic, given the calm regularity of the verse form. Such techniques characterize not only Viereck's poetry but also his ideas of cultural conservatism.
In the first stanza, Viereck introduces the subject of his poem, a bas-relief (or a sculpture in which figures are carved so that they protrude out of a stone background) from ancient Assyria. Assyria was an ancient kingdom, very powerful in Biblical times (it flourished especially from 1000 B.C. to 606 B.C.) that stretched from the Tigris and Euphrates basin to modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The bas-relief shows "a lion with a prophet's beard" with "wonderfully sad" eyes. To the narrator, the lion appears to be coming out of the bas-relief to stretch its paws, just before "the terrible king grows wings." At this point, the narrator is imagining rather than simply transcribing what is in the sculpture. He sees the lion fly "above the black Euphrates loam, / Hunting for the enemies of Nineveh." Nineveh was an important city in the heart of the Assyrian territory in present-day Iraq. In the third stanza of this section, the narrator calls out some of the names of this lion; the names are the names of the powerful kings of the Assyrian empire, culminating with "the first Sargon of Dur-Sharukin." Sargon was one of the greatest kings of Assyria, ruling from 722 B.C. to 705 B.C, and built his palace at Dur-Sharukin, near Nineveh.
In these stanzas the narrator hears the voice of the lion—the lion who channels the spirits of the dead Assyrian kings—and begins to understand the character of Assyrian life. This lion speaks of luxuriating while his "chariots stormed the town" and of building "a pillar of skulls so high it stabbed the sun." Here, the poet is drawing a contrast between the personal luxury that the king enjoys and the savagery that was the hallmark of the Assyrian empire. The poet, after hearing this, questions himself: "Was that the tomb's voice, or the desert-wind's? Or ours?" He does not know where these vioces come from, and fears that perhaps he will awaken this spirit of savagery and bloodlust in his own time (drawing an ironic parallel with the unimaginable, industrialized killing perpetrated in particular by the Nazis and carried...
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